Our history has seen a lot of rallying cries, from the spine-tingling — “Give me liberty, or give me death!” — to the overly specific — “Fifty-four-forty or fight!” (Give up? A vocal minority wanted to set the US boundary with Canada at 54 degrees, 40 minutes of latitude, rather than at the present 48th parallel, thus leaving Canadians with nothing but tundra.) The slogans that lasted, and were effective, called for something specific to happen. A generation ago, an American populist convulsion sought to end the war in Vietnam, and did. Now comes Occupy Wall Street, and a question: when we have occupied Wall Street, or anywhere else, what have we done?
Please do not mistake this for a screed against the populist uprising. For years I have been asking where is the outrage, and why people were not in the streets to protest what has been happening to our country. So I am glad to see this happen, and I am not one of those who dismiss protesters against unearned wealth on the grounds that they are not wealthy, or demean those who cry out against unemployment on the grounds that they do not have jobs.
This favorite retreat of the right wing and the upper one per cent is the classic Marie Antoinette mistake: she who is supposed to have said, of peasants crying for bread, “Let them eat cake,” and who was later induced by those peasants to eat the blade of a guillotine. Their rallying cry, by the way, was “Liberty! Equality! Fraternities!” Or whatever that third one was. Don’t you think that has a better ring than “Occupy Paris?”
So it must be asked of the Occupy movement — and the question is meant here entirely as constructive criticism — what were you thinking when you let a Canadian ad agency brand your howl of protest against everything awful the American system has become. “Occupy Wall Street?”
Despite the ravages of Rovian politics and Orwellian advertising, language still matters. People and movements are defined and remembered with words. Don’t misunderestimate that. It was impressive that you gathered in your tens of thousands to shout that you’re mad as hell and aren’t going to take it any more. But your friends are asking with concern the same question your enemies are using to mock you: mad about what, exactly? Bank bailouts? CEO pay? Unearned wealth? Low taxes for the wealthy? Lack of government concern for the health and safety of ordinary people? Yes, of course, all of the above, but now what?
Here is the way of the world: occupy a place long enough, with enough people, without preparation, infrastructure or administration, and pretty soon the only issue that matters to anybody is sanitation. Here is another: make a list of everything you hate, assail everything all at once, and you resemble that legendary cowboy hero who leaped on his horse and rode off in all directions at once.
Focus. Is there not a thing at the heart of all that we deplore, a thing we could fix? Of course there is.
All that is evil in our political system comes from one poisoned root: the influence of money in politics and government. So long as fortunes are required to succeed in politics and take the reins of government, this sick system will perpetuate itself. Only when political candidates fear ordinary people more than they fear the displeasure of their bankers will the system begin to right itself.
This requires true campaign finance reform. By which I mean, we must make it a crime to make, or to take, any donation to a political campaign that does not come from a person who lives in the district the politician seeks to represent. No contributions from any organization, period — no corporation, union, PAC or committee. None. No contribution of more than, say, a thousand dollars per person per election. Then, and only then, will we begin to see the peoples’ will be done.
Such a law, of course, could only be passed, indeed could only be brought to a vote, over the figuratively dead bodies of thousands of lobbyists. It could be accomplished only if the roar of a mob of tens of thousands were ringing in the ears of the formerly powerful.
So focus! Occupy Washington! Stop the Money!